SDG series -Tackling the Youth Employment Challenge


After the millennium development goals that were to be attained in 2015, the UN member states agreed on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that were to act as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. MSM highly values the SDGs within its capacity-building projects as well as our degree and executive programs. With the importance of the SDGs in mind, we have started the SDG series – ‘Exploring Pathways and Innovation Towards Meeting the SDG’s.’ In this first article, we dive into SDG 8 “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” 

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We particularly focused on the critical issue of youth employment. To get insights, we called upon our international community of policymakers, business leaders, researchers and civil society actors from different countries such as Colombia, Ethiopia and Kenya to share key insights how they are combating youth unemployment. To extend this gathered data, (COVID-19 proof) focus groups were organized to also get the viewpoint of youth and their view on youth unemployment. Focus group discussion (FGDs)  were done both online and face to face (when possible) with a group of  youths aged between 20-34 years who had at least completed the secondary school education with at least 5 youths in every group. Roll balling was used to select youth representative from rural settings, urban and peri-urban setting. In Kenya data was collected from both Key informant and 3 focus Group Discussions were held. In Ethiopia data was collected from key informants only while in Colombia data was collected from 2 FGDs and key informants.

Youth are critical in economic growth
The word youth is a concept that has elicited a lot of debates on what it entails and why it should be considered important with one school of thought suggesting that it is a life stage that should be recognized for having its own set of complex issues and experiences while some people contending youth is merely a transition from childhood to adulthood. Whichever way, youth are critical in the economic growth and youth unemployment is a challenge worth the debate.

Worldwide there are approximately 1.3 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24, of which 776 million (more than half) – are outside the labor force, meaning that they are not in employment and are not looking or available for a job. Of this number approximately 497 million are in the labor force. Among the youth in the labor force, around 429 million are employed, (ILO,2020) while nearly 68 million are looking for, and are available for, work. The World Bank estimates that over the next decade, one billion young people will try to enter the job market, but less than half of them will find formal jobs. This will leave the majority of young people, many in the minority and marginalized groups, unemployed or experiencing working poverty. Young people are three times as likely as adults (25 years and older) to be unemployed. Although this is partly because their limited work experience counts against them when they are applying for entry-level jobs, there are also major structural barriers preventing young people from entering the labor market.

The predicted rise in economic inequality and inadequate job opportunities has the potential to negatively impact a generation of young people around the world. Left unchecked, the youth unemployment can have dire social repercussions as unemployed youth tend to feel left out, leading to social exclusion, anxiety and a lack of hope for the future possibly leading to millions of young people floundering in poverty and frustration. In Africa, for example, the number of youth between 15-24 years is projected to be 400million in 2045 (UNECA,2017), if issues of youth unemployment are not addressed, then a crisis is awaiting.  For example, forty per cent of youths joining the ranks of rebel and terror groups cite a lack of economic opportunity as the key motivation (AfDB, 2017). Many youths are also leaving Africa to search for jobs. Much of this immigration is illegal and fueling the emergence of criminal network smuggling people especially to Europe. This is a particularly dangerous option for the youth who suffer from predation and other dangers. Over 3,500 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015 while trying to make the perilous journey (AfDB, 2015).

To start, two factors are essential to get youth into jobs, namely; substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training (NEET); and develop and operationalize a global strategy for youth employment. These themes will now be explored more in-depth.

The Youth Jobs Landscape

Drivers of Youth Unemployment
The key informants were asked to rate the main causes of youth unemployment. What stood out as the main cause was the education system, with reasons being that there is a skills mismatch between training/vocational skills with the job market - current and future. Also, the economy and policy were rated high as contributing factors to unemployment. The economy was reported to be unfavorable and worsened by the current covid-19 pandemic that saw many countries downsizing. Policies were reported to be in place but the implementation was lacking.

Figure 1: Drivers of Youth Unemployment (Rated out of 1 being not important, 5 being very important)

Youth Jobs Reality
According to the Institute of Economic Affairs (2016), the informal sector takes up to 81% of Kenya's population, with 75% being youth which means at least 61% of the youth are in the informal sector while around 39% being in formal employment. The participants of the online survey reported that only 30% of the youth were in the formal sector while the majority were in the informal sector. This information was complemented by data from the Focus Group Discussion (FGD) where the youth said that ‘Most of the youths are doing casual jobs (construction workers, hawkers, pulling carts) despite being well educated just to make ends meet.’ The specific sectors of formal employment are civil servants in the health sector and education. A casual laborer was the term commonly used for the youths in the informal sectors.

Formal sector-top jobs Informal sector-top jobs
Government employees (civil servant) Agriculture (casual labor)
Health sectors (nurses, clinical officers, doctors) Casual laborers in the industry
Education (teaching) Sales and marketing
Hospitality and tourism (hotel) Petty trades/street trade
Registered business/trade/enterprises  Service provision in hotels, tourism
IT and services Construction, handcrafts (metalwork and woodwork)
Others: secutiry, research industry, NGOs, entertainment, mining, forestry

Table 1: Top Sectors Employing Youths.

Decent Jobs and Youths
The poor quality of many jobs held by young people manifests itself in precarious working conditions, a lack of legal and social protection and limited opportunities for training and career progression. The fact that three in four young workers worldwide were engaged in informal employment in 2016 points to the scale of the problem. Informality is particularly pervasive in subregions such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, where it affects close to 96 per cent of employed youth (ILO, 2017).

In the focus group discussions, the youths were asked to rate the jobs, youths, in general, were engaged in, in terms of the various dimensions of decent jobs i.e. pay, job security, social protection, opportunity for personal development, freedom to organized and free from discrimination. As presented in figure 2, the jobs were rated low in all dimensions of decent jobs and in particular on pay, job security and social protection. This is a basic reflection of the informal and precarious jobs they have. The FGD participants expressed that they felt discriminated due to lack of job experience and that they need to compromise morals such as through corruption to get a job.

Figure 2: Rating of Youth Jobs from Perspective of Decent Jobs

From the perspective of the youths, their definition for a decent job includes:

  • Good pay: The youths had different ideas when it came to how much they expected to be paid per month. On average the youth expected to be paid between 500 -1000 USD per month)
  • Flexibility: the youth want jobs that give them the flexibility to do other jobs/or side businesses
  • Professional career: they aspire to have a job that is in line with their areas of training and education
  • Dignity: A decent job should preserve one’s dignity. Protects and respects your personal beliefs and values. There needs to be a threshold where there is an emphasis on employee well being
  • Job security: Have longer-lasting jobs other than contractual/short term jobs of between 6 months to 24 months.
  • Benefits: a job that offers benefits such as medical insurance, transport, and housing allowances
  • Work culture/environment: The job environment should be positive and friendly where people are appreciated, and it is flexible for an individual to prosper.
  • Growth opportunities: A job that goes hand in hand with skills level and opportunity for development and growth. Both at skills level and position level.

Youth Aspirations
The youth prospects for employment were rated between low to medium (at 2.7 out of 5) and the description for the prospect was described as “a hard mountain to climb.’ Nonetheless, it didn’t mean that the youth did not have ambitions for their life. They have high aspirations. The participants aspired in the next 5 years to; Get a good job; Start a business; Get a high level of education; Start a family; Support their family; Own a property; Travel around the country and the world; Achieve financial stability; Work Abroad[1]

The Future of Work and Youths Jobs Prospects

The world is now moving towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)[2] which presents the youth with both opportunities and challenges in the labor market. Paradoxically, despite being enthusiastic early adopters of new technologies, young people also tend to worry the most about the possibility of jobs being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. In both developed and developing countries, there is widespread concern that such technologies may lead to the destruction of jobs. The key informants were asked what the main challenges and opportunities that 4IR offers. A summary is provided:

  • AI: The key opportunities were seen as creating new opportunities through a better understanding of data. Improve the quality and timeliness of products. Making jobs safer e.g. use of robots in hospitals. Improve the diffusion of knowledge and learning e.g. through YouTube. The key challenges are the high investment capital needed, lack of skills, ethical issues around the use of the technologies e.g. who bears responsibilities for mistakes made by AI machines say the cases of a self-driving car. The technologies are also exacerbating inequalities.
  • Data Mining: This is seen as an area with significant potential including optimizing marketing through understanding which marketing campaigns will likely generate the most engagement, better classification of customers, personalized advertisements etc. The challenges were seen mainly based on privacy from the ability to gather huge amounts of personal collections. Poor data quality, lack of skills tools and infrastructure.
  • 3D printing; The key opportunity in 3D printing was seen as the simplicity, efficiency cost-effectiveness and ability to produce anything imaginable. No need to develop a huge manufacturing base. The challenge for this technology was when large batches need to be produced, knowledge and skill gap, the unavailability of technology and the need for frequent updates Blockchain: Can help improve supply chains, build trust through easing records sharing. Potential to transform whole sectors and the economy as many business and even government are intermediaries to improve trust and thus facilitation transactions.  The challenges include lack of knowledge, pushback from an existing power structure.

Future Jobs and Youths
The jobs of the future were mostly envisioned to be jobs in the agriculture sector including the mechanization of the sectors, automation, and agribusiness. The needed skills for the future include entrepreneurship, innovation specialists, and people management skills. There were variations across the countries surveyed as shown in Table 2.

Jobs of the Future Youths Job Aspiration
Colombia Ethiopia Kenya Colombia Ethiopia Kenya        
Manufacturing Data Scientists Financial sector Business owners         
Environmental protection Cybersecurity Government Online marketing                              
Construction Technology and automation specialists Travel agency/tourism                             Advertisement 
Agriculture and processing Agribuiness automation of sustems and use of platforms Agriculture Modern farming (agribusiness)
Online marketing Renewable energy specialists Manufacturing/building Real estate
AI and robotic engineers Education
People and culture specialists Healthcare
Customer Service

Table 2: Variation of Jobs envisioned in the future per country.

Most youths want to engage in business, nonetheless, most young people lack basic skills such as financial literacy, business plan, bookkeeping among others, which hinder them from starting or rather, sustaining their businesses. Both public and private partners should work in building capacity for young people to acquire basic business knowledge. Thus, achieve success in their ventures.

Of interest is that despite the changes that 4IR is likely to unleash, the sectors that the youth aspire to work in are still more of the traditional sectors such as the government where they would like to work as civil servants and, in the health, and agriculture sectors. This could be a reflection of the lack of information on the emerging opportunity but also a realization that these sectors will remain albeit transformed.  Perhaps the more pertinent question is the skills needed in the 4IR world.

Future Skills
The skills needed in the future are analytical thinking, Data management, Digital, Emotional intelligence, Entrepreneurship, Futurists, Human User Interface specialists, mindset skill, people management, problem-solving and Ideation, Quality control, Supporting Platforms that link people to opportunity; technology/innovation, Artisans especially skills on metalwork, leather and textile, woodwork, food making.

Looking ahead; actions being taken to create employment opportunities for the youth and prepare them for the future of work

The youths situation is dire currently and the unfolding 4th Industrial Revolution may further complicate the situation as while the 4IR may create new opportunities many challenges need to be overcome to make the opportunities for developing countries and more crucially youths are not prepared to seize the opportunities. Concerning efforts by many stakeholders are needed to take several actions in improving youth job prospects and also preparedness for 4IR. These are the following:

Government: Government can play a key role especially through direct programs and also incentives to their actors especially the private sector that improves skills and also create opportunity. For example in Kenya, the Kenya Youth Development Policy 2019, the Youth Fund are established and operational. Through these programs, the government has established bursaries, loans and grants for education including vocational training. There is a need to have policies that target sectors with good potential to create jobs e.g. tourism, agricultures, creative sectors e.g. handicrafts. The promotion of cottage industries is also seen as key. A bold program like national youth services programs that seek to cultivate important values like discipline while also providing vocational training has also been advocated. More crucially government should invite more investment and resources and also regulate the education system based on labour market needs and developing the entrepreneurship mindset.

Business: Business can do more on providing job training for youth to gain the required skills. They can also become better citizens through investing in their employees to participate in volunteering programmes that seek to provide mentorship to the youth. Some are actively recruiting young people, looking for ICT Skills, and people with the right mindset and attitudes with support of foundations e.g. Mastercard Foundation; Rockefeller, Ford Foundation etc. these collaborations can be further deepened. Giving youths a chance should be at the top of their agenda's.

Development partners: Development partners can play an important role in undertaking deep research on youth issues. They can also provide start-up kits for promising youth to create jobs and grant support to MSMEs to grow and employ more youth. They can develop challenge funds for youth enterprises or businesses to apply to generate more youth employment or women employment.

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs): CSOs can do more to drive social inclusion through influencing and lobbying for better socio-economic policies. Support youths to better organized to create more opportunities and also to build influence. They can also do capacity building and also through their programming create job opportunities for the youth. Keys is also built values and ethics through necessary training and programs. They can also complement research efforts to other stakeholders to identify issues and opportunities.


Youths face high unemployment and lack preparedness of the future of jobs. The key culprit is poorly performing economies that create few jobs and also education systems that have left youths ill-prepared. While much of the blame can be placed in government, the private sector has also failed in its role as a good citizen in providing opportunities and building skills.

As the fourth revolution unfolds it is bringing new challenges but also many opportunities. How countries are not well prepared in terms of infrastructure, skills and tools needed to take advantage, Young people are also largely unaware of the many opportunities that will come with 4IR.

More concerted and coordinated efforts will be needed by the key stakeholders especially government, the private sector, the development partners and civil society to improve readiness and of the economies for the 4IR and more crucially prepare the youths for the 4IR world. Key will be building programs that build skills and at the same time create new opportunities. The private sector as the engine of growth will need to work closely with government, development partners and civil society to see where it can work together to develop new opportunities and more crucially where it can leverage its expertise to mentor and build the capacity of the youths.

As innovation will be key in capturing opportunities offered by 4IR, innovations models will be key underscoring the need to develop triple helix partnerships that bring universities, governments/policymakers and industry and also development partners together to drive co-creation of solutions and also more efficient deployment of scarce resources. MSM is at the forefront of development Triple helix platforms and seeks, particularly, to use them to help upgrade tertiary education institutions and the students especially through upgrading skills and entrepreneurship by having them plays a key part and indeed driving the triple helix partnerships.

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African Development Bank (AfDB) (2017). Growth and job creation: Policy options for pro-employment growth. Background paper for the African Economic Outlook 2018 report of the African Development Bank. Abidjan: African Development Bank Group

African Development Bank (2015). African Development Report 2015 Growth, Poverty and Inequality Nexus. Abidjan: African Development Bank Group

ILO(2017) The Global Employment Trends for Youth report /groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/publ/documents/publication/wcms_737648.pd

United Nations Economic for Africa(2017). IDEP leads dialogue on youth employment and the demographic dividend in Africa. Available at

[1] It is the dream of most youth wanting to seek greener pastures by looking for work abroad

[2] The key technologies driving 4IR technologies include Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data mining/data mining, 3D Printing, Internet of Things (IoT)

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